PHNOM PENH – It is often forgotten that, having been in the political arena such a long time, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak is the region’s newest leader.
After marking his first anniversary in office last month, he will pay an inaugural visit to Cambodia this week buoyed by the come-from-behind victory of his government’s candidate in a crucial by-election last week.
That domestic triumph came on the heels of a much-lauded visit to Washington by Najib, who – along with China’s Hu Jintao – was one of only two leaders at a nuclear security summit to be granted a private meeting with President Barack Obama.
Said Najib: “The very fact that you can get a piece of the president’s time during a summit of 47 leaders means something.”
Perhaps Najib can give a few tips to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is the region’s longest-serving elected leader but has never received an invitation to the White House.
Najib, 56, and Hun Sen, 57, lead parties that have dominated their nation’s political landscapes in modern times.
Intriguingly, they both also have charismatic opposition leaders – Anwar Ibrahim and Sam Rainsy – who are currently sidelined by contentious criminal charges.
But there the similarities end. Unlike Hun Sen, who rose from lowly origins, Najib hails from the cream of Malaysian society. The son of a former prime minister, he has been groomed for leadership since birth.
He finally assumed power after the National Front, a coalition of race-based parties that has ruled Malaysia since independence suffered its worst-ever election result.
Najib has begun to reverse the tide. And he now exudes more confidence about his radical new economic programme, announced in March, to win back foreign investment and boost growth by reforming the nation’s racially divisive pro-Malay economic policies.
If it works, Najib said that Malaysia will grow at 6.5 percent a year and double its GDP per capita from the present US$7,000 to $15,000 by 2020.
It is an admirable goal, but it is going to be a hard sell, especially if Najib is to retain the support of the Malay ground, without which he can never win the next general election.
Najib has always been a gradualist. Unlike Hun Sen or Mahathir Mohamad, he is not a bold, proactive man prone to long speeches laced with provocative comments.
Najib told me that ever since 1976 when he became an lawmaker at age 22: “I’ve made steady progress, but always in stages. Although I started young, my rise has been a gradual ascent up the political hierarchy.”
He has now reached the pinnacle and is still making slow, steady progress, especially to improve Malaysia’s ties with the US, which were notoriously fraught during Mahathir’s long premiership.
Said Najib: “I am able to relate to the kampongs, but also if you were to send me to 10 Downing Street or the White House, I would be equally at home in arguing Malaysia’s case.”
He will need to argue that case well to achieve his goals, but if he succeeds he will go down in history as the most reformist leader since – well, since his father.
Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent
for Asiaweek and former bureau chief in Washington
and Hanoi for The Straits Times.
He has covered East Asia for the past 25 years.